For much of this decade, immigration has been an important topic on the public agenda. Nowhere is that more true than in California. The state is home to 9.9 million immigrants, its governor is an immigrant, and it is a border state on the front lines of the debate over immigration reform. State and local policies concerning immigrants are hotly debated across the state, and the raucous debate over an anti-immigrant initiative in 1996, is widely perceived to have influenced the electoral landscape in lasting ways.

Understanding the values and perspectives that Californians bring to this debate is critical. In general, Californians hold a favorable opinion of immigrants, believing that immigration is a benefit to the state. Most California adults believe undocumented immigrants should stay and work in the United States rather than be deported to their native countries.

At the same time, Californians are concerned about the impact of some aspects of immigration on their state. Most Californians attribute the majority of their population growth to immigration, while most voters also see the population growth projected for California as unsustainable, and ultimately having a negative impact on the state.

When it comes to resolving immigration-related problems, Californians were split on which presidential candidate would do a better job dealing with it in October 2008, although they voted for then Senator Barack Obama over Senator John McCain by a large margin on Election Day (Obama’s 61% to McCain’s 37%).
California general attitudes toward immigration are similar to nationwide trends. A majority of voters around the country remain consistent in their preference for a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants who currently live in the country over deportation. Pre-election, voters across the country were divided on whether then Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain would do a better job on the immigration issue, with Obama having a slight over McCain.

Immigrants and the Economy
California statewide surveys conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California in 2008 and 2009 show that the majority of Californians continue to feel that immigrants are a benefit to the state because of their hard work and job skills, not a burden on public resources.

Pathway to legalization
A vast majority of Californians prefer that undocumented immigrants who have been working in the United States for two or more years should be allowed to keep their jobs and apply for legal status, as shown by two surveys by the Public Policy Institute of California. Opinions have not changed significantly in the past 18 months.

Keep jobs n’ apply to legal status:  69% (Sep ’09); 72% (Mar ’08)
Deported: 25% (Sep ’09); 28% (Mar ’08)

Population growth concerns
Source: Public Policy Institute of California

California adults perceive immigration as being the greatest of four contributors to population growth in California. Whites are the most likely demographic group to express this belief, and Latinos are the least likely to do so.

A vast margin (81 percent) of Californians also believe “illegal” immigration contributes a lot (50 percent) or somewhat (31 percent) to population growth. Fewer respondents, though still a majority (65 percent), reported that legal immigration contributes to population growth a lot (25 percent) or somewhat (40 percent).

There is a discrepancy between what Californians perceive as the main cause of population growth and what actually is the main cause of the phenomenon. Statistical data on California demographics shows that births, not immigration, account for most of the population growth (under half of these births are attributable to immigrant women).8 Further, more than half of Californians believe the growth of the population in the coming decades will have a negative impact on their lives.

Politics and Immigration
Source: Public Policy Institute of California

Californians were split on which presidential candidate for the 2008 election would do a better job on immigration with then Senator Barack Obama leading Senator John McCain by a slight margin, according to two pre-election surveys by the Public Policy Institute of California. Those opinions were consistent with voters’ divide over which party, the Democratic or Republican, would perform better on the immigration issue.

“Regardless of your choice for president, which of these candidates would do the better job on each of these issues—John McCain or Barack Obama? Which candidate would do a better job on immigration?

-John McCain: 37%
-Barack Obama: 40%
-Someone else: 3%
-Don’t know: 20%

“Please tell me if you think the Republican Party or the Democratic Party could do a better job of handling each of these national issues. First, Which party could do a better job of handling immigration?”

-Democratic Party: 42%
-Republican Party: 37%
-Both equally: 3%
-Neither: 11%
-Don’t know: 7%

To read more about the public discourse on immigration in California, download The Opportunity Agenda’s report here.

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